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Sweeping changes across the North Coast's political landscape will present major challenges this election year both for voters and for candidates in state races, with one possible outcome being an almost entirely new and untested slate of leaders handling local problems in Sacramento.

Four of the North Coast's five seats in the state Legislature are being contested this year in reshaped political districts that have sown voter confusion and upset the traditional balance of power.

Sonoma County's standing as political kingmaker may no longer hold true in several races this election season, now that the county's influence is dispersed across three Assembly and two Senate districts.

But it's not just redistricting that has led to what one observer labeled the Year of Disruption in local politics. Also creating upheaval are a relatively new open-primary system in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the final round in November, the influence of moneyed interests in campaigns and a new generation of Democratic Party politicians who have a rare opportunity to seize control.

"It's certainly a paradigm shift," said Stephen Gale, chairman of the Sonoma County Democratic Party.

The 2014 legislative races are crucial because they could determine who represents the North Coast's interests in Sacramento for many years to come. Under a relaxing of term-limit rules passed by voters in 2012, legislators can serve up to 12 years in a single office.

And yet, there's a sense many voters on the North Coast aren't aware of which district they live in, or who's running.

"There has been a great deal of confusion among folks who are trying to figure out who is representing them, and who they'll be voting for in the next election," Gale said.

Political districts are reshaped every 10 years after the census to adjust for population shifts, ensuring that each district has roughly the same number of voters. But many people still are struggling to understand the boundaries set in 2010.

Santa Rosa, for instance, is in a coastal Senate district represented by Noreen Evans that stretches from Marin County to the Oregon border, but Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Sonoma are at the western edge of a district represented by Lois Wolk that spans the Interstate 80 corridor from Vallejo to Davis.

Evans' decision to not seek a second Senate term this year shocked many of her constituents and initially set off a scramble for her seat. The main beneficiary appears to be Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire, who is the only Democrat still entered in the contest.

McGuire is among the next generation of candidates who are seeking to rise through the ranks.

"Normally, they would defer to a more senior member who would just run, run, run," said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University.

A similar trend is occurring in the 4th Assembly District that now includes all of Lake and Napa counties and 75 percent of Yolo County, as well as a section of Sonoma County including Rohnert Park and the unincorporated areas of Oakmont, Bennett Valley and Sonoma Valley. None of the candidates in that race has political experience at the state level.

Should Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, win re-election in the 10th Assembly District, which includes the southern portion of Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Marin County, he would become the North Coast's senior legislator in only his second term in office, aside from Wolk.

Watch the committee hearing

A bill that would streamline environmental review for housing in Santa Rosa got mixed reviews at its first committee hearing Wednesday. To watch the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality hearing, click here.

At her Capitol office recently, Wolk said the turnover is a good thing for the North Coast, which she said "has always had good representation."

"That's the standard," she said. "There are many, many people coming up that have those qualities. I think it's a real opportunity."

Wes Chesbro, an Arcata Democrat whose redrawn 2nd Assembly District stretches from northern Santa Rosa to the Oregon border, also sees positives with the generational shift. "The one good thing you can say about term limits is that the Legislature today is more reflective of the people of California than it was before term limits," he said.

But Chesbro, who himself is barred from running this year because of term limits, said the turnover also means the North Coast loses legislators who know how the Capitol and their own districts function.

Evans shares that view. "You get fresh ideas, which is always a good thing. But you have to balance that out with the loss of experience and influence," she said.

The trend on the North Coast is mirrored statewide. For the first time in more than a century, a majority of Assembly members taking office at the start of 2014 were freshmen.

North Coast voters who live in districts where races are competitive can expect to be deluged with mail, phone calls and knocks on their doors this campaign season, McCuan said.

"The field of candidates has changed dramatically. Many folks are introducing themselves to voters for the first time," he said.

Rohnert Park and Sonoma Valley residents, for instance, will be choosing their next Assembly representative from a field of candidates in Napa or Davis in Yolo County, barring more entrants before the March filing deadline. That 4th District race in particular underscores how Sonoma County's role in election politics has been watered down.

"Sonoma County is not, part and parcel, the focus of many of these races," McCuan said.

Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, currently represents the 4th District but cannot run this year due to term limits. "I don't know if Sonoma County was expecting the change that is coming," she said.

Campaigning has gotten under way earlier than ever as a result of the open-primary system, which has generated more competitive races. On the North Coast, that mainly involves Democrats going head-to-head in June and again in November.

Yamada said she voted against the open-primary system because she feared it would lead to "longer, costlier and uglier" contests.

She said those fears are being borne out, helped along by court decisions such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that permits political committees to raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash. Both Democrats and Republicans have embraced the concept.

"The money-in-politics issue is really overwhelming, and I think that we already see that people do not believe that their vote counts," Yamada said.

At the end of the day, political observers say Sonoma County ultimately could benefit by having additional representatives in Sacramento, particularly on the Assembly side.

"When we're all on the same page, that's powerful," Chesbro said.

But the challenge will be finding common ground on major legislative issues such as immigration, pensions or, this year, water, in districts that now span large areas and diverse lifestyles. The coastal Senate district, which encompasses seven counties and nearly a million people, is a prime example.

"It presents a unique challenge that requires a legislator to apply the energy necessary to cover that entire territory. It's not an easy thing to do," Gale said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521.5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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